Character-Driven Snitch Worth Rooting For
Self-made businessman John Matthews’ (Dwayne Johnson) estranged son Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) has made a terrible mistake. He signed for a package of illegal pills sent by his friend for safekeeping, making him the target of DEA sting that ends up labeling him big time narcotics trafficker. Mandatory Minimum Laws do not allow for errors in judgment, they do not distinguish good kids who did something stupid from actual dealers who make a living selling product. All they do is send people to jail for a long, long time, so now this teenager with his whole future in front of him is about to have everything ruined in nothing short of a blink of the eye.
Dwayne Johnson in Snitch © Summit Entertainment
John feels at fault. Divorced from Jason’s mom Sylvie (Melina Kanakaredes) for years, he hasn’t been as big a part of the boy’s life as he has wanted to be, not let him know just how much he loves him and how proud he is of his son’s achievements. Knowing that Jason will not implicate his friends in any wrongdoing just to save his own skin, John takes it upon himself to find a way to get the teen out of prison, making a deal with U.S. Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon) to go undercover in order to bring real, heavy-duty drug dealers to justice.
The filmmakers behind Snitch would like you to think the film is inspired by real events, using a “Nightline” piece discussing and analyzing those Mandatory Minimum Laws as cover, but the reality is that the movie follows a fairly routine and familiar game plan. John tricks one of his ex-con employees, Daniel James (Jon Bernthal), to give him an introduction into the drug running world. Meet goes well, but the assigned job meets with complications, complications the secretly undercover dad overcomes impressing Mexican bigwig Juan Carlos ‘El Topo’ Pintera (Benjamin Bratt) in the process. With visions of a major score clouding her judgment, Keeghan changes the rules of the game much to the consternation of the DEA Agent Cooper (Barry Pepper) thus putting John’s life in danger.
Not a lot that happens in co-writer Justin Haythe’s (Revolutionary Road) and director Ric Roman Waugh’s (Felon) script comes as a big surprise. John is in over his head but remains committed all the same, doesn’t want to see Daniel come to harm (especially after he learns he’s as committed a family man as he is) and will find a way out of his situation that keeps him alive, gets his son out of jail and appeases the narcissistic glory-hound Keeghan. There are few twists that shock and fewer turns that aren’t anticipated, meaning the human side of the equation better be on point or the melodramatic will fall to pieces long before it’s given the opportunity to fits all of its pieces together.
Thankfully, said human drama gets the job done far more often than not. Haythe and Waugh put character first, making sure both John and Daniel are solidly three-dimensional and that secondary players Jason, Keeghan and Cooper, not to mention villains El Topo and fellow drug dealer Malik (a riveting Michael K. Williams), aren’t left on the sidelines looking for something interesting to do. The stories are compelling. More than that, the come together with remarkably fluidity, making even the sillier aspects of the scenario feel far more plausible than they arguably have any right to.
Yet, as good as all of this is, and it is pretty great, the elephant in the room is sadly Johnson. Not because he gives a bad performance, he most decidedly does not, mining territories and depths he’s heretofore never explored before, but more because his physical presence and the way he carries himself makes him oftentimes unbelievable as the uncertain and unequipped John. The action star still carries himself like he’s the undisputed champion of the wrestling ring, so physically imposing most of the time it’s difficult to believe he couldn’t handle the tough guys shuffling around him looking to do him and his family harm with nothing less than a flick of the wrist. At a certain point wonders what might have been had the actor and his costar Bernthal, who is terrific, switched roles, an idea I can’t get out of my noggin no matter how hard I try.
Still, I respect the attempt, and here’s hoping that at some point Johnson will be able to learn how to carry himself in a way that will make all aspects of a performance such as this easier to have faith in. Overall, while Haythe and Waugh have a message regarding drug laws they want to impart (not with a ton of subtly, I might add) they still do it by constructing characters and situations easy to build an emotional connection with. Snitch is hardly original and definitely doesn’t go far out of the box but it does have style, it certainly has energy and it remembers to put story and character before action, giving the audience a reason to be applauding and not just a wooden mannequin to halfheartedly root for.
Film Rating: ęęę (out of 4)